Arkamondos the scribe has just been given a new and unusual commission. He’s been hired by a notorious band of Syldoon soldiers to travel with them and observe and transcribe their adventures. The leader of this motley crew is Captain Killcoin, a brooding authoritarian figure whose weapon of choice is a frightening looking flail that has magical properties. Killcoin is accompanied by a few loyal companions who are just as scary and tough as he is. Arkamondos is intimidated by all of them, and he wonders if he’s made a big mistake, but Killcoin’s insistence that important events are about to occur makes Arkamondos decide that it will be best for his career if he stays… Plus, they’ll probably kill him if he leaves.
So off he goes with Killcoin’s band. They are coarse and vulgar but their dialog is frequently sharp and witty. There is much drinking, cursing, barfing, bleeding, pissing, etc. (Should be appealing to Joe Abercrombie’s fans.) But at the same time, there is something underneath, at least for Captain Killcoin, that suggests a nobility of purpose that he may be purposely repressing for now.
It takes a while for Scourge of the Betrayer to really get going, but once it does the plot becomes quite interesting. Arkamondos witnesses many strange and horrible things — bar fights, long gruesome battles, murders, curses, sickness, healing, treachery, trickery, manipulation, and magical weapons and boundaries. By the end of the story, Arkamondos isn’t much more enlightened about the impending important events than he was at the beginning and neither are we, the readers. Who does Killcoin work for? Why is he so feared? Why does he seem like such a tortured soul? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Why is his band so loyal? What is happening in the realm? It’s obvious that something significant is happening, but what is it?
For a book that provides so little information, it’s surprisingly gripping. I was transfixed on the very first page. My reaction, I think, reflects a weakness for bookish protagonists who find themselves thrown in with warriors. I wasn’t really aware of this little fetish of mine until I read Scourge of the Betrayer, but the contrast between Arkamondos and his new comrades — a rough seemingly uncivilized little group — made me recognize it, and when I stopped to think about this, I realized that I almost always like these sorts of characters. I think it’s because they’re introspective. They think about what they’re seeing and they report it in the first person. They can react emotionally or mentally, and they can judge the actions of others, but they are neutral figures — they are not supposed to influence the action. This allows for some interesting observations, insights, and ethical dillemas. But of course, occasionally Arkamondos does make the decision to act and these are some of the best scenes in the novel. Arkamondos is also engaging when he relates what he sees and experiences to his own life and the low self-esteem he feels because he’s the bastard son of a prostitute. Arkamondos doesn’t learn much about his companions’ plans in Scourge of the Betrayer, but he does learn a lot about himself, about other people, and about companionship, loyalty, and love. I look forward to seeing how he develops in Veil of the Deserters, the second book in BLOODSOUNDER’S ARC.
Scourge of the Betrayer is a promising debut. Jeff Salyard’s has created some unique and likable characters, the writing is strong, and the story, though it takes a while to get going, is exciting and mysterious. I listened to Kris Chung narrate the audio version produced by Audible Studios. This was the first book I’ve heard by Chung (he’s fairly new to the audiobook world, I think) and I was pleased. I will choose this format for the sequel.